Sunday, April 13, 2008

Setting Boundaries with Students in the Classroom and Beyond

This is intended specifically for those teachers at the university level and in other adult learning situations.

An important part of classroom management involves setting boundaries. The parameters you set will also extend outside the classroom. This is extremely important for anyone considering teaching English at universities in Asia. My own experiences and observations of other teachers have shown that failure to do so can lead to some very awkward situations.

Thai students look positively at the opportunity to be taught by a foreign instructor. It means that the usual rules don't apply. Teachers receive a great deal of respect in Thai society and students learn early on that they must behave in a deferential manner while in the classroom. There are exceptions, of course, but I have seen far more defined rules regarding the relationship between teachers and pupils here than exists in western countries.

So, it is uncharted territory for many of the university kids who walk into class on the first day of term and see a foreigner sitting behind the desk. A giddy expectation fills the air as they realize that the strict criteria that govern interaction can be ignored for the duration of the course. This can have both positive and negative results for everyone involved.

The sense of expectation and the initial energy are both things that can be used to get off to a good start. However, play it the wrong way and students may get the impression that their time with you is going to be a free ride. Laying down a clear set of guidelines regarding expectations and classroom rules can set the tone and make it clear that you have no intention of allowing a party atmosphere to develop.

Don't Give In

Once you have established what is acceptable, both in terms of behaviour during class and deadlines for assignments, you will be tested early. Whining, excuse-making and flat out lying are things that you should expect within your first few weeks. It almost seems to be a challenge amongst classmates to see who can first put one over on the imported clown and prove that he is a soft touch ready to be taken advantage of.

A firm, unflinching adherence to the standards you have laid out is the best approach when faced with a persistent student looking to get a deadline extension or have another misdemeanor forgiven. There are, of course, certain situations in which you have no alternative but to give the benefit of the doubt. The doctor's note holds a certain untouchable status in the world of student excuses and there is really no way that you can question its validity. But there certainly are a lot of ostensibly healthy young individuals coming down with maladies and ailments just as various assignments are due.

There are definitely other cases that may arise that could require some leniency and allowances being made. After all, as an instructor at a university, you hardly want to be rigid and unwilling to consider the nuances and specifics of each individual situation. The most important thing to remember is that you at least maintain the image of a teacher who is tough.

In the Classroom

Thai people in general are quite modest. However, subsequent generations are becoming more and more open about issues previously considered off-limits for casual conversation with relative strangers. Lewd comments made by students in the classroom are not uncommon. This is fueled further by the belief that all foreigners are the wise-cracking, sexual innuendo spewing clods featured in many Hollywood movies.

On occasion, a student will say something that is worthy of a laugh. The odd light-hearted moment together when the class and teacher share in a joke is a good thing for the most part. However, to ensure that the wrong message is not sent, ignoring most borderline comments in a stern and brusque manner is the best course of action.

It is also essential that you avoid developing favorites during lessons. Any attempts to promote discussion and invite questions will inevitably see a handful of students as the most active. You will need to do your best to elicit response from others who are at first reluctant. But the more naturally forthcoming will still contribute the most. It is important to subtly limit their comments when necessary. Also, as much as you may genuinely enjoy the truly interested kids who make intelligent comments and ask good questions, you must temper your reactions towards them. Try to observe your own body language and demeanor when interacting in the class and make sure to be as democratic with your emotions as possible.

This should be done with the purpose of avoiding the impression that you like one student more than others. It has been my experience that Thai students, especially, have a skewed idea about what contributes to their final grade. It's as if they think it is some arbitrary distinction which can be improved by being friendly and smiling. The effusive "thank yous" following good grades on assignments and exams (and which I alway deflect by indicating to them that gratitude is not necessary or even appropriate) tells me that they doubt the whole system and motives of instructors. I make it clear that merit is all that counts. Still, avoiding the impression that certain students enjoy a special status is crucial.

Students who Want to be Friends

You meet some exceptional and intriguing youngsters while teaching. However, you must be very careful about taking any friendship beyond the classroom. Personally, I put up a difficult to misinterpret wall that makes it clear that I simply have no time for anything beyond offers of extra help within office hours or the odd chat before or after class. It is a shame that a person has to be so careful.

I generally operate under the belief that any situation in life could bring you together with a potential life-long friend. Unfortunately, like many interactions, the instructor/pupil relationship is one of power too fraught with possibilities of misinterpretation. The perception of others must be considered as well. If other members of the class see it as an attempt to curry favour, and that student coincidentally does well, gossip and insinuations will fly.

And, any honest person would have to question how much they are being influenced psychologically by such a friendship, especially teaching courses that involve a good deal of subjectivity when making assessments.

Male Teachers and Female Students

This is strongly related to the previous point. It's hard to over-emphasize how much you will be tested in this regard. After having taught at Thai universities for six years, it's sometimes hard to believe that a reputation exists in the minds of Thais regarding the supposed openness and provocative nature of western women. Revealing clothing, tight school uniforms with too short skirts and a kind of caricature of over-the-top come hither looks and other brazen attempts at flirting are all things that you will encounter as a male teacher.

90% of it is likely done in the spirit of impressing friends and trying out their new found sense of feminine wiles. But there are definitely more than a few who would like to test the potentially risky waters of something more. To deny that there is not an enjoyable aspect to all this attention would be dishonest. But just as satisfying is knowing that you have developed a reputation of someone who doesn't react or respond to any such attempts at manipulation.

Not surprisingly, there are foreign teachers who throw all caution to the wind and cross all sorts of lines when interacting with students.

Over the Top and Begging for Trouble

Many teachers I have worked with give out their mobile numbers to students with little concern. They provide the number to one of the more responsible pupils with the instruction that it be used only regarding issues related to school. Surprisingly, this request is usually respected. But sometimes calls are made at odd times of the day and night and when answered, giggling voices and a hang-up click are the only response.

The furthest I have gone in providing access outside office hours is my e-mail address. I have thankfully had no problems because of this.

I have seen extreme disregard for any decency from some foreign teachers and it is truly a repugnant sight to behold. The lack of any sanctions from superiors seems to fuel the behaviour. The culprit develops a sense of surreal abandon, as if they are living in a strange universe where the most unwise but thrilling activities are neither recognized nor punished. Of course, they are noted and filed away to be used at a possible date in the future when the overall performance of the teacher may be called into question. Amazingly, this flagrant abuse of power sometimes has no bearing on the length of a teacher's stay at a particular school.

One teacher I worked with was a model of putrid corruption when it came to dealing with his students. He regularly went out with them on weekends and drank with them to all hours of the night. Of course, it was only a select few who finagled their way into his inner circle. How did the other students feel about this? He had little concern for such thoughts.

He regularly smoked cigarettes in the men's toilets at school, strode in late for classes and scoffed at advice from other teachers who warned him about such behaviour. One day a group of students rushed up to me and showed me a series of drunken photos of them together with the fool in a hotel room. At least there were never any rumours of him regarding indiscretions with females students but only because he wasn't so inclined.

Despite all this (or maybe because of it), he was one of the most popular foreign instructors at the university. He eventually moved on to a different school with nary a caution from management about his extracurricular activities.

To engage in these kinds of practices is extremely risky and could result in being fired or in rare cases, attempts at blackmail.

Keep your treatment of students professional, respectful and fair. Together with a number of other factors, this will help you to have an interesting and worthwhile period of employment at universities in Thailand and the rest of Asia.


jeanluc said...

Excellent comments! I worked at American universities prior to TEFL teaching and the behaviors you outline are universal. It is strange that a new country would encourage some to abandon rationale rather than embrace caution...thanks for your well-developed comments on this issue. PS: I am planning a university position in Japan or possible Thailand within the next six months. I will share this with my traveling/teacher compansion(s).

Ken said...


Hi. Thanks for your feedback. The reasons are numerous regarding why so many foreigners engage in self-destructive behaviour here. Hopefully, I will address that in the future.

Good luck in Japan or Thailand (I believe Japan would be more beneficial career-wise.)

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